Research News

Balancing life, health and research

Graduate student perseveres to increase access for persons with severe disabilities

Kavita Krishnaswamy's doctoral dissertation defense at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), was fairly typical: dissertation committee, doctoral candidate, explanatory slides, questions from the committee.

When it was over and time to deliberate, Tim Oates, Kavita's advisor, asked her to leave the room. Because Kavita delivered her presentation via a beam smart presence system (BeamPro), she powered down the computer screen beaming her into the meeting.

This was business as usual for the computer science student, whose research involves developing robotic prototypes to transfer, reposition and perform personal hygiene tasks for those with severe disabilities. She is also studying how to improve control over robotic interfaces for these individuals. Her toolkit includes elements of machine learning, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces and other communication technologies.

Using technology to improve technology

Knowing intimately the challenges of coping with a severe disability--her own physical abilities deteriorate due to spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition affecting movement--Kavita makes the most of available technology to continue her quest to improve the quality of life and increase autonomy for individuals with disabilities. She uses multiple communication platforms including Skype, Google Hangout, email and a phone to stay in touch with her UMBC colleagues.

During the past year, she has relied on the BeamPro to interact with her peers and perform research.

"I attend many events, talks, seminars, and conferences with the beam, allowing me independence and mobility to meet, learn and network with professionals all over the world," Kavita explains. "The beam gives me independence to be visible in the community to explore and expand technological boundaries from my home to exchange ideas with high-achieving entrepreneurs, innovative researchers and industry leaders."

Pursuing excellence

Her strong academic record and research insights have not gone unnoticed. Kavita is the recipient of a Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate (BD) Fellowship, a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP) and a Ford Foundation Fellowship. These highly selective programs recognize and provide financial support for individuals that have demonstrated the potential for significant achievements in science and engineering (S&E).

"I am extremely grateful for the research support of these fellowships," says Kavita. "These fellowships are instrumental in facilitating my research career in many ways and making it possible for me to be one step closer to achieving my goals to assist people with disabilities. They enable me to focus on my research goals with greater determination to succeed."

In reviewing Kavita's credentials for the LSAMP BD Fellowship, UMBC LSAMP director Cynthia Hill says, "she just stood above so many others." In addition to double majoring in mathematics and computer science at UMBC and achieving a 4.0 GPA as an undergraduate, Kavita also started an organization for students with disabilities and people who wanted to support them.

Tasha Inniss, program director and co-lead, along with Art Hicks, of NSF's LSAMP program, describes the UMBC BD Fellowship program as "unique and innovative" because it allows students to live their lives while staying involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Adds Hill, who is also associate provost, "Many of our students are still persisting like Kavita. We have students who work full time while pursuing a Ph.D. part time. Some have moved through the program faster than others, but they're hanging in there."

The UMBC BD program provides two years of financial support from NSF and requires a commitment from a fellow's department to continue to fund the student when the fellowship ends. The program also requires fellows to mentor new BD fellows.

Kavita embraces this aspect of the program and works closely with Renetta Tull, UMBC associate vice provost for graduate student development and postdoctoral affairs.

"Dr. Tull encourages me to share my research updates with the BD fellows to inspire and motivate them to pursue STEM research that will benefit society in a significant way." To stay in touch with other fellows, Kavita uses the BeamPro and social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

Expanding access

Pursuing technologies to increase independence for people with disabilities is just one goal Kavita would like to achieve. The other is to increase the active participation of underrepresented groups in the community locally, nationwide and internationally via research, especially those with disabilities.

Kavita's NSF Graduate Research Fellowship has helped provide a foundation for this latter goal.

"The best and brightest individuals are selected through a national competition early in their graduate careers based on their potential to succeed in science and engineering and to broaden participation in the field," says GRFP Program Director Gisele Muller-Parker. "[Kavita] is clearly passionate about helping others through the development of robotics research and is an inspiring leader in this area."

The NSF GRFP awards 2,000 fellowships annually, selecting recipients from a pool of 16,000 or more applicants. Each award provides three years of financial support for graduate study that leads to a research-based master's or doctoral degree in S&E.

After receiving her doctorate, Kavita plans to focus solely on research in either academia or industry.

"I will emphasize the importance of an inclusive environment for all by conducting research to advance technology development and increase diversity as a leader in computing, robotics and accessibility," she says.

Inspired by others

For Kavita, her biggest challenge is balancing life, health and research.

"As a woman with a severe physical disability, this is comparatively more challenging than it is for my peers without a disability," she says.

When she began her undergraduate studies, Kavita could still attend class, and with the help of her mother, Pushpa, wrote mathematical equations with a soft lead pencil. As her condition progressed, she turned to MathType, an equation editor suggested by math advisor Muddappa Gowda. This allowed Kavita to type mathematical notations in a word processing program. Now, using the index finger on her right hand, one of the few sets of muscles she can still control, she guides a trackball mouse to write papers and programming code with the help of an onscreen virtual keyboard.

The resourcefulness of countless colleagues continues to inspire Kavita to reach her highest potential.

"I am most surprised that my dream to help others become more independent is coming to reality little by little through the product of combined efforts of many individuals that have supported the progress of my research," she says.

"The latest developments in technology, specifically in the field of robotics, inspire me to design and develop robotic devices that will allow people with disabilities to accomplish the tasks of daily life independently to positively change the quality of their lives and revolutionize accessibility."

When UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski III shared his favorite words by Langston Hughes with Kavita, she says her perspective broadened and her confidence to always believe in achieving her dreams grew:

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly."